There’s a bunch of stuff I should be writing about, so this is going to be one of those omnibus posts. If you want to skip the NEWS & COMMENTARY bits and go right to my thinking through what, if any, resolutions I’m going to make for ’13, then you can skip down to the picture and read from there.
1. Marty Moss-Coane had another program on The Obesity Epidemic the other day. We were driving downstate to meet my darling Aunt Sandra for lunch (got to love that we can each drive an hour from our respective ends of the state to meet in the middle and, in good traffic, spend no more than an hour on the road–ah, Delaware) when the show was on, so I took a lot of notes. The two guests were GARY FOSTER, Director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University and GIRIDHAR MALLYA, Director of Policy and Planning at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. They had some good news. Putting better foods into Philly schools and corner stores is showing signs of reducing obesity levels in Philly. And I think this actually is good news.
The two guests and Ms. Moss-Coane were a little less hysterical/knee-jerk than I am accustomed to hearing even in the obsessively moderate halls of NPR. There was the usual stuff about portion size and the relationship between obesity and various public health issues–all that written-in-stone accepted wisdom, but there was also a fair amount of rational talk about access to good food being not just a human right, but a thing that has very widespread benefits. I’ve said before that if the First Lady’s crusade results in broccoli and oranges being available and affordable in poor neighborhoods, then she can fuss all she wants about fat kids. And these guys had some really nice evidence about how well subsidized farmer’s markets in inner city neighborhoods actually work. Bodies do, indeed, come in a huge variety of natural sizes and shapes, and obesity has an immensely complex set of drivers, some of which are not controllable, but if there is an inarguable rise in childhood obesity in a certain population, and that population is significant for its lack of access to healthy food, then that population is not making a choice to eat badly and make its children fat. And children, in any and all situations, deserve access to good food. McDonalds and sugary sodas are not good food, generally speaking. They’re adult choices.
So, while it wasn’t a truly, uniformly, intelligent and useful discussion, it was certainly less hysteria-ridden and FAT=BAD PEOPLE than much of what I’ve heard. Well, except for their lead-eared response to a mother who called in about her “morbidly obese” (I’m betting that’s her physician’s delightedly sadistic term and not an actual description of the kid, whose life she is being pushed to pathologize to the point where it is bordering on child abuse–and this is the question she was clearly asking, but not the question the two guests heard–they seemed weirdly fine with having a 7-year old regularly crying from hunger in an upper-middle class household–a 7-year old who is exercising and being fed nothing but “healthy” portions of hyper-healthy foods. This is the point when I got kind of furious…). And there was Dr. Fosters nearly casual aside that bariatric surgery is a very effective “treatment.” that pushed a few buttons.
2. That show tied in rather nicely with an interesting article from The Economist ( http://www.economist.com/news/21566294-obesity-spreads-developing-world-charlotte-howard-suggests-ways-fight-flab-world ). The Economist is noteworthy for its generally rational and careful, if a bit right of center, take on the world. I suppose it was inevitable that they’d get around to the Obesity Crisis. I am not sure that rising rates of obesity are not, in fact, a thing worth noting. My problem is with the automatic assumption that fat is, in and of itself, a pathology, which is not upheld by truly careful research. Whether it predisposes a person to other actual health issues is a thing that still bears careful examination, but that is a much more complicated issue than it has so far been treated as, and there has been a lot of leaping-to-dire-conclusions and making-of-veiled-but-ugly-threats based on fairly tenuous research, much of it statistical. And statistics are not terribly reliable, since they tend to do what I have been accused (with some justice) of doing–springing to conclusions that are more products of passion than of clear-sighted reason. So I am willing to believe that it’s probably important to track what appears to be a global rise in human girth. But what it actually means is still vastly too unclear for people to be howling about yet.
That being said, if the discussion leads to better, healthier food being available to more people, and some serious discussion (as opposed to We’re_All_Going-To-Die-Because-We-Sit-While-We Work hysteria) about the implications of changes in dominant physical behaviors, then fine. And because humans can’t do anything straightforwardly, the discussions are bound to be mash-ups of agendas and information.
But The Economist‘s discussion was kind of pleasantly calm once you got beyond its a priori assumption that the global trend is a bad thing (and they did quote all the usual crap a bout how much it costs the US medical system…so the kudos here are very limited):
One response is to do nothing. If an individual is fat, so be it. John Stuart Mill said the state may intervene only if a man’s actions harm not just himself but others. But medical costs are high and, in rich countries, are usually borne by taxpayers. Obesity squeaks by Mill’s test.
A second response is to punish those who are overweight. Japan has set a specific limit to citizens’ waistlines. If workers do not slim down, their employers face fines. This is overreach. Weight is hard to lose, and keep off, because of hormonal changes. And people may be fat for reasons—including their childhood and their work—which are not their fault.
A third response is somewhere in the middle: the “soft paternalism” favoured by behavioural economists. The idea is not to limit choice, but to make it easier for individuals to choose carrots over French fries. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is veering from soft to hard paternalism: his ban on the sale of big soda bottles is due to take effect in March 2013.
What’s the right policy mix? Here’s some advice for the year ahead (call it The Economist diet). Governments should not force people to eat broccoli, but they can certainly change subsidies to make broccoli cheaper. They can ensure that school lunches are healthy and that children have time to run around. They can set clear standards for nutrition labels, so that educated consumers will shop wisely and demand healthier products. Governments should also consider imposing a hefty tax on soda. The syrupy stuff is a main driver of obesity and, unlike a hamburger, has no nutritional value. A soda tax is far less intrusive of an individual’s liberty than, say, forcing him to wear a seat belt.
More questionable is whether governments should force companies to make healthier food. Firms are trying to fend off intervention by acting first, for example by reducing salt. In 2010 companies promised to cut 1.5 trillion calories from their American offerings within five years. The first progress report will be published in 2013. Watch out, though, for firms that make food healthier in the West but keep peddling junk elsewhere.
Got to love that they worked John Stuart Mill into the discussion. I think I could live with some version of their diet.
3. Now on to the business of 2013. First, let me say that since I survived a difficult birth on the 13th of a month, I am inclined to think that the number is more lucky for me than not. That being said, I don’t play it in any lotteries. But I am free of triskaidekaphobia.
I am not, on the whole, in favor of New Year’s Resolutions. Mostly they just turn into reasons for us to beat up on ourselves, which we mostly have enough of already, so it seems to me to be a lousy idea to set up a new year by loading some more reasons-I-suck onto its back. Too much to carry.
So you won’t be surprised that I am not making any I’m-going-to-exercise-more sorts of resolutions. Even though I am planning to do so, I am not going to elevate a good idea to the level of A Resolution.
In truth, my major concern about ’13 is to hope kind of desperately that it’s a little gentler on my spirit–on all our spirits– than ’12 has been. There has been a lot of crying in ’12, for really, really good reasons. It did provide several really lovely pieces of news–the husband finished a book he’s been torturing himself with for decades, one daughter got a good job after a long search, one daughter got pregnant with our second grandchild, I had a chapbook accepted by a nice press, and the grandson continues to be one piece of light and joy after the other even if he is 2. In many ways, it was a good year. But it was also a brute year in many. So I’m more than content to see it go. Besides, there will be a new baby to rejoice my heart in ’13, and if that isn’t a reason to look forward to a year, I don’t know what is.
And I believe in marking seasons and transitions, ritually. I’m a very big believer in ritual and liturgy. So some sort of Resolutions are in order, since that’s the culture’s common way of marking the transition from one year to the next (well, other than getting blotto and behaving really badly while confetti drops into your champagne–that ritual I have never found worthwhile–starting a new year with a hangover makes no sense to me–neither to my Inner Puritan, nor to my Inner Voluptuary).
I think I’m going to make 2. See, I am capable of moderation. The first is to try to ALWAYS check snopes.com before I repost stuff on FB. The second is to read more poetry. I read a lot, but this is definitely a place where more will be better. I like 3s, so maybe a 3rd is in order–maybe something about being more conscious of and careful about how I spend my various energies.
The blog’s coming up on its 1st birthday in a month or so. I’m thinking a lot about how it should go on. One thing that occurs to me is that there may be things you’d like to see me address. Please feel free to nudge/ask/suggest. Some of you already do, and I love it.
Meanwhile, may your days be merry and bright, through the holidays and into the new year. And may that new year be full of blessings for one and all, from wherever you believe blessings come.